Beyond the declines in overall violence in Iraq, several crucial measures the Bush administration uses to demonstrate economic, political and security progress are either incorrect or far more mixed than the administration has acknowledged, according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office.
Over all, the report says, the American plan for a stable Iraq lacks a strategic framework that meshes with the administration’s goals, is falling out of touch with the realities on the ground and contains serious flaws in its operational guidelines.
Newly declassified data in the report on countrywide attacks in May shows that increases in violence during March and April that were touched off by an Iraqi government assault on militias in Basra have given way to a calmer period. Numbers of daily attacks have been comparable to those earlier in the year, representing about a 70 percent decline since June 2007, the data shows.
While those figures confirm the assessments by American military commanders that many of the security improvements that first became apparent last fall are still holding, a number of the figures that have been used to show broader progress in Iraq are either misleading or simply incorrect, the report says.
Administration figures, according to the report, broadly overstate gains in some categories, including the readiness of the Iraqi Army, electricity production and how much money Iraq is spending on its reconstruction.
And the security gains themselves rest in large part not on broad-scale advances in political and social reconciliation and a functioning Iraqi government, but on a few specific advances that remain fragile, the report says. The relatively calm period rests mostly on the American troop increase, a shaky cease-fire declared by militias loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, and an American-led program to pay former insurgents to help keep the peace, the report says.
“Clearly there are substantial changes in the security situation on the ground,” said Nathan Freier, a retired Army officer who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2007 and is now a senior fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The administration prefers to focus on those improvements, Mr. Freier said. But the accountability office report, which Mr. Freier read on Monday, and his own observations in Iraq contain a different message, he said.
“Iraq remains a mixed bag and will continue to do so in perpetuity, to be quite honest,” he added.
Letters from the Treasury Department, the State Department and the Pentagon that were attached to the report all disagreed with many of its central findings. In the language common to such government exchanges, for example, the Pentagon said that it “nonconcurs” with the conclusion that a new strategy for stabilizing Iraq was needed.
The unclassified version of the American plan, laid out by President Bush in January 2007 in what he called “The New Way Forward in Iraq,” is still the proper guideline, according to the Pentagon, whose response was written by Christopher C. Straub, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.
“The New Way Forward strategy remains valid,” Mr. Straub wrote. “We recognize, as with all strategies, updates and refinements occur at various intervals to take into account changes in the strategic environment.”
But the president set out that plan as something that would take 12 to 18 months and would include achievements like enacting a law to regulate Iraq’s oil industry and handing all of Iraq’s provinces over to Iraqi control, the report says. As of this week, only 9 of 18 provinces had been handed over, according to the report, and the crucial oil law remains to be enacted.
In other cases, what appeared to be promising political developments have faltered. Although the Iraqi Parliament enacted a law reforming the heavy-handed purge from government of former members of the Baath Party, no members have yet been named to the commission created to carry out the law.
Still more important, the report asserts, the administration’s plan is not a strategy at all, but more a series of operational prescriptions scattered among various documents reviewed by the accountability office.
“A strategic plan should be a plan that takes you not only through the short term,” said Joseph A. Christoff, director of international affairs and trade at the accountability office.
“If the New Way Forward only takes you through July 2008, then you don’t have any guidance for achieving an Iraq that can do everything on its own,” including dealing with the threat of terrorism and defending its own borders, Mr. Christoff said.
Perhaps the most confounding element in the report is the sharp disagreement between the accountability office and the administration over the value of basic indicators of progress.
For example, in an analysis based on a classified study of Iraqi Army battalions, the office concludes that just 10 percent of them are capable of operating independently in counterinsurgency operations and that even then they rely on American support.
But the Pentagon, as stated in Mr. Straub’s letter, maintains that 70 percent of Iraqi units are in the lead in counterinsurgency operations. The difference may be partly semantics: Are the Iraqi units in the lead, with Americans close at hand, or are they able to operate on their own? But the office essentially concludes that the Pentagon is claiming that units with far lower readiness grades are ready to lead than it did in the past.
Similarly, by looking at official figures, the office was unable to substantiate American claims that Iraq had spent and committed more than 60 percent of its reconstruction budget in 2007. Instead, the number was 28 percent, the report said.